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Short NBA Finals may be start of a lengthy rivalry

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Associated Press
6/22/2012 1:05:32 PM
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MIAMI -- Workout partners, NBA Finals foes, and in a few weeks, Olympic teammates.

LeBron James and Kevin Durant were together from the delayed start to the quick finish of this shortened NBA season, sharing a lengthy embrace moments after James' championship chase was finally complete.

Humbled last year in his first attempt in Miami, James allowed himself only a couple of weeks off before returning to the gym. He invited Durant to join him, not realizing they would be on a much bigger stage than his Ohio home so quickly.

"I envisioned it, but I didn't know it was going to happen," James said. "But to see a few months later that we was going to meet each other in the finals, it was a great moment for myself and for him."

Get used to it.

The Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder are likely to be back here again, perhaps as soon as next season, when James gets to see how it feels to defend a title and Durant inherits his role as the best player without one.

"You know, this is not the last time we'll see the Oklahoma City," James said. "I wouldn't be surprised -- this won't be the last time we see them in the finals."

The Heat were too good in this one, finishing off the Thunder with a 121-106 victory in Game 5 on Thursday night. James had 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists, then picked up all nine votes in balloting for the MVP award and one tip of the cap from Durant.

"Like I say, I'm not one for giving guys credit during the season, but it's over with, and that guy is an unbelievable player and an unbelievable person," Durant said. "I enjoyed working out with him this summer. It was fun playing against him in the finals, but you could just tell he was very focused from the beginning of the season."

The Heat have reached both finals since James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami two summers ago. They had to experience finals failure their first time, a path the Thunder will have to take.

"Well, they're going to gain a lot," Wade said. "You know, it's scary to see those young guys, man, and to be in this position. They're so talented. They have an unbelievably bright future here. But one thing I've learned, nothing is promised. You have to seize every moment."

Wade won a title in 2006, then needed six years and a historic free agency haul before the Heat could add a second. With their Big Three in place, it seems unlikely the wait for another will be as long, especially if James remains as driven as he was this season.

They will have to continue finding supporting players such as Mike Miller, who signed on shortly after the All-Star trio. After battling numerous injuries the last two years, the reserve made seven 3-pointers in the clincher.

"Well, we believe that we built a team that's going to be around for a while, and our goal is to hopefully come back every year," team president Pat Riley said during the trophy presentation.

Riley wouldn't guarantee a repeat, as he once famously did at a championship celebration while coaching the Los Angeles Lakers. The closest he came to a prediction this time came as he congratulated the Thunder organization.

"We hope to see them again," Riley said. "I'm sure that we will."

In Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder have their two All-Stars locked up long term. Their difficulty will be in retaining fellow 23-and-under core pieces James Harden, the Sixth Man of the Year, and Serge Ibaka if they become free agents after next season. The new spending rules that came out of the lockout included a much steeper luxury tax system that could deter most teams -- especially a small-market one like Oklahoma City -- from wading too far over the salary-cap line in search of a contender.

The James-Durant matchup, together with all the attention the Heat already drew, gave the NBA one last triumph in a season that was already better than it expected. The lockout hardly hurt at all, with fans coming right back and tuning in even more for the 66-game season that began on Christmas with the Heat routing the Dallas Mavericks in a finals rematch.

The Mavericks never gave themselves a shot to get back, letting key pieces leave so they could save money for free agency that begins July 1. The Thunder have no such concerns, and they will join the Heat as the favourites to be playing in mid-June next year.

The teams delivered in their first finals matchup, drawing the finals' highest TV ratings since 2004 to watch James outduel Durant for the Larry O'Brien trophy and the title as best player in the game.

So, how about doing it again?

"This is one of the best finals, when you talk about matchups, when you talk about everyone tuning in and wanting to see, because these are two teams that in the summer everyone said they should be in the finals," Wade said. "We lived up to the billing. They're going to be around for a while, and we would love to be around just as long and just as much."

Kevin Durant and LeBron James (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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